Anti-Theist Activism Is Social Justice Activism

I’ve seen many atheist activists, particularly young atheist activists, dismiss the idea of doing anti-theist activism because they’re “interested in social justice”. This is wrong.

It isn’t wrong that they don’t want to do anti-theist activism. Being confrontational, particularly about a topic that raises emotions and tangles with taboo the way religion does, isn’t for everyone. It’s a long haul without much in the way of immediate reward. Besides, there is plenty of social justice work needing good, dedicated, atheist hands. As long as you’re accomplishing something in line with your goals, the good kind of activism is the kind that keeps you motivated to keep pouring your time, energy, and money into it.

However, I have to disagree with the idea that anti-theist activism isn’t social justice activism. While I disagree with those who seem to think that religion is at the root of all our ills, it plays a large role in maintaining several basic injustices, particularly in the U.S.

Photo of a painting. Three skeletons sit on three bombs in the classic, "see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil" pose. The three bombs are marked with the Star of David, the cross, and the star and crescent.
“See no evil” by olivermccloud. Some rights reserved.

I think no one who reads this would be surprised to see equal rights for sexual minorities as an issue in which religion plays a role on the wrong side of justice. We’ve watched bigotry be shielded with cries of “religious persecution”. We’ve seen churches overstep legal bounds in their determination to stop marriage equality. Still, we may not know that some of the worst of modern persecution of sexual minorities originated in churches in the U.S. and was paid for by American tithing.

Similarly, no one will blink if I write about religion meddling with the rights of women to control their own bodies. We’ve seen too many religious attacks on abortion and contraception availability recently for that. We’ve seen churches demand the “right” to meddle in health care for “conscience” reasons. We’ve seen every societal ill blamed on feminism. Still, those same people may not remember that there are women (girls usually) in this country who still have no say in who they marry.

People will nod if I mention religious interference with education, thinking of evolution and sexual education, though they may not understand the full scope of the problem. The children kept separate from the world in religious schools or homeschooled specifically so they can be denied an education are too far out of their experience. So are the girls married off before they can graduate high school, much less figure out how to afford college with no parental support–assuming they’ve been prepared to be accepted.

Plenty of folks will flinch if I mention child abuse, thinking of Dawkins’ facile pronouncements. But “Spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t just still quoted. It’s a best-seller, even after leading to multiple child deaths. Then there’s faith healing, from the (larger than you think) part it plays in the anti-vaccination movement to the medical treatments that are declined as “immoral” to those parents who pray over a dying child who could be easily saved by basic treatment. We hear about a few cases of that every year when the parents are prosecuted, but we don’t hear about them all. Hell, it’s still legal in two U.S. states, and non-lethal religious medical neglect is legal in many more. And I haven’t even talked about emotional abuse.

It actually gets worse with religious “treatment” of certain disorders. As much as we want to think that exorcism is a quaint, abandoned, Catholic relic, it isn’t. Not only do Catholics still practice exorcism in numbers that would surprise much of the laity, but evangelicals have picked up the practice. When world evangelical leaders were polled in 2010, 57% of them–more than half–had viewed an exorcism. And let’s not forget what an exorcism is–an attempt to drive demons out of human bodies by making those bodies unpleasant places to be, either through prayer or through more…corporal means–or what it is commonly used to treat–mental illness and rebellion in young people.

Now, the people who don’t think we should criticize religion as a whole will point to my examples and say that the problem isn’t religion. The problem is conservatism–fundamentalism. But the (few) problems I mentioned aren’t exclusive to fundamentalist faiths. The concept of exorcism may be more nebulous in New Age faiths, but it still exists, and it’s still dangerous. Ditto for faith healing. While pressure on education from liberal religion is much less than from conservative religion, it isn’t the conservatives positing various “ways of knowing” as equally valid. And complementarianism is still complementarianism whether people are being pressured to live “God’s plan” or simply exude the type of energy “appropriate” to their assigned sex. It’s also still rigidly binary.

It is true that the worst of these abuses tend to happen in fundamentalist sects, but anyone thinking we just need to wait for them to die out has another thing coming. The Quiverfull movement is less than 30 years old. “Planted” churches, like the Anglican church in much of Africa, are frequently more conservative than the traditions that spawned them. The U.S. is on its fourth Great Awakening, which sent the country on a decidedly conservative swing. Conservatism doesn’t just hang on because people have some weird, unhelpful religious beliefs that have been passed down from antiquity. People adopt or invent religious trappings that justify their conservative beliefs, that lend them authority.

That authority–that unearned authority–is what makes religion dangerous, what throws it down as an obstacle in the path of someone seeking social justice. That isn’t to say that authority can’t be used for good. Several liberal and progressive ministers spoke out for marriage equality here in Minnesota in the last couple of years. However, several conservative ministers spoke against it, as there will always be conservative ministers to do. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Every lawmaker could point to someone lending them the moral authority to vote the way they already wanted to.

It’s a problem when anyone, with any positions, can claim moral authority. Good positions, and the people who hold them, don’t need that authority. Their ideas stand on their own. But the moral authority of religion can, and does, cover for a multitude of sins in our politics.

Sometimes it’s funny. Michele Bachmann didn’t do a lot of voting in the House. She rarely sponsored a bill, and none that she sponsored were signed into law. That made her ability to coast on religious righteousness amusing. Usually. Until she tried to keep Muslims from being able to serve in the government.

Unfortunately, too many of the people who ride into government on only their religious authority do real harm of the sort that people interested in social justice should be paying close attention to. Much of the hands-on volunteer work that atheist activists do centers around poverty. Packing meals for food shelves, serving dinners to the homeless–these are popular activities. Rightly so. This is work that needs to be done.

However, the problems of poverty in the U.S. are so vast that, even if every atheist here were to volunteer and donate (ignoring for the moment that many atheists live in poverty themselves), we still couldn’t do all that needs to be done. This is a systemic issue, made worse over the last several decades by shifts in tax burdens, a lagging minimum wage, cuts in government programs that provide the means of economic mobility and stability. The last three decades have seen an extended campaign to create and maintain a U.S. underclass, and this campaign has been hugely successful.

Who has been at the forefront of this campaign? How have they been allowed to take from the poor and give to the rich? While some of the politicians responsible have used the peccadilloes of their opponents for moral authority, most of them have painted themselves as good, moral people by making reference to their religion or by associating themselves with people who were conspicuously religious. Reagan played upon religious values and identities in calling for unregulated capitalism. The possibility that Rand Paul’s professed religious views might be only for show was an issue in at least one of his elections.

Throughout this long campaign, conspicuous religiosity has stood in for moral credibility and authority grounded in reality. “Good people”, with “good” defined as “religious”, have done immeasurable harm to individuals and to our country on this issue. As with the issue of marriage equality, offering up religious voices with different viewpoints on poverty and governmental responsibility merely puts both views on equal ground. If we want to make a difference on the issue of poverty, we’d do far better to decouple faith and moral authority, to make it clear that moral authority is measured in real-world arguments and consequences.

It isn’t just poverty, either. As I said to the very liberal pastor I debated on the radio for Christmas a few years ago, good ideas can stand on their own with a little advocacy. They don’t need the authority of religion. Bad ideas do. Religious authority is one of the few things that can keep a bad argument holding on well past its time.

None of this means I’m telling any particular person that they need to engage in anti-theist activism. I’m certainly not telling everyone they need to debate pastors for Christmas, or at all. Do the activism you’re good at, the activism that motivates you, as long as it actually contributes toward your goals. But let’s stop with this talk that anti-theist activism is somehow opposed to social justice activism. While it’s possible for anti-thiest activism to be poorly done, or done for motives other than social justice, anti-theist activism is one form, a necessary form, of social justice activism.

Anti-Theist Activism Is Social Justice Activism
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28 thoughts on “Anti-Theist Activism Is Social Justice Activism

  1. 1

    The title alone made me a bit leery of this post, because there are assuredly theists in need of the protection of social justice movements, and including antitheism under the umbrella that’s supposed to be helping those people seems like it could be a very bad thing.

    An Arab immigrant beaten for wearing a symbol of their faith walks into a social justice tent looking for a safe place. Sees “fight theism” on wall. Leaves and gets another beating. This paragraph is poorly constructed. Have at me.

    I feel like most of your points were weaker than usual or contradicted themselves by the time the paragraph was finished. I would concede your point that fighting the beliefs of theists is often necessary to achieve social justice, but given the world we have, it can be harmful to minorities to make that a specifically advertised goal of your movement.

    Protecting atheists is a social justice movement, protecting both believers and non-believers from the harmful beliefs of theists must be part of many categories of social justice movement, but anti-theism itself – not a social justice movement. If that makes sense.

    Richard Dawkins demonstrates my point more ably than I can. He’d probably take offense at being associated with the phrase social justice – too much like the dreaded “sociology.”

  2. 2

    An Arab immigrant beaten for wearing a symbol of their faith walks into a social justice tent looking for a safe place. Sees “fight theism” on wall.

    Then leaves to go to a tent full of nicer people, sees “fight patriarchy” on wall. Leaves again. Social justice group concludes that fighting patriarchy is counter to their cause? Doubtful. But I guess it’s different when the oppressive social structure is as popular as religion?

  3. 3

    And complementarianism is still complementarianism whether people are being pressured to live “God’s plan” or simply exude the type of energy “appropriate” to their assigned sex.

    That’s the exact reason a New Age medium gave when advising me not to transition. That’s about when I stopped trusting liberal religion to be any kinder to me than fundamentalists.

  4. 5

    Great American Satan, saying anti-theism activism is social justice activism is not saying it is all of social justice activism. Also, I’m not really that interested in what Dawkins thinks of social justice. It’s not exactly something he’s studied.

  5. Ada

    The things you cite are indeed social justice issues. But I can’t get behind the idea of anti-theist activism. Many of the people suffering from these harms are theists, am I to act against them?

  6. Ada

    From your post, I would imagine it is, for you, some combination of anti-religious, pro-secularism, anti-fundamentalist, pro-rationalist (or anti-faith-based-reasoning) activism. And yet you call it anti-theist activism, which I would ordinarily interpret to consist of, you know, activism against theists.

  7. Ada

    Why would you call your activism anti-theist unless it is actually activism against theists?

    I asked a question because theists, generally, do not appear in the list of things you are anti in the body of your post. So either I didn’t understand your post and you are, in fact, an activist against theists, or I did understand your post and and didn’t understand your title.

  8. 12

    Anti-racist activism isn’t activism against ‘racists’, it’s against ‘racism’.
    Anti-homphobia activism isn’t activism against ‘homophobes’, it’s against ‘homophobia’.

    This doesn’t seem complicated to me.

  9. 13

    Ah, yes, that would be a matter of not understanding the title. As atheist activism is activism done by atheists to further their goals as atheists, so anti-theist activism is activism done by anti-theists to further their goals as anti-theists. And as atheists are without theism, rather than without theists, anti-theists oppose theism, not theists.

    I hope that clears everything up for you.

  10. 14

    The only reasons you have given for doing any anti-theism activism are all regular social justice reason. Regular social justice already has the fights against homophobia and women’s oppression and all that covered. What specifically about anti-theism itself, intrinsically, qualifies as social justice?

    In my opinion, nothing.

    Opposing specific institutions is not, in itself, social justice. I oppose the Salvation Army or the Quiverfull movement, but I do it FOR social justice reasons, not AS social justice in itself.

    You understand the difference?

    Unless you show some instrinsic social injustice inherent to belief in god, anti-theism activism is not social justice in itself. You can just be anti-theistic for social justice reasons.

  11. Ada

    Anti-racist activism isn’t activism against ‘racists’, it’s against ‘racism’.
    Anti-homphobia activism isn’t activism against ‘homophobes’, it’s against ‘homophobia’.

    I see your point, although (aside from this post using anti-theist that way) I can’t think of another instance of that particular usage [anti-Xist being activism against Xism]. (This is further supported by the fact that, when attempting to come up with a second example, your example was not anti-homophobe activism or anti-heterosexist activism but anti-homophobia activism. Anti-homophobia isn’t an analogous construction to anti-theist, it is an analogous construction to anti-theism.)

    But yeah, regardless, my question was answered.

  12. Ada


    If anti-theist is a major, commonly used term for what I’ve only previously seen described variously as atheist activism or secularist activism or rationalist activism then I’ll happily eat my metaphorical hat and admit that I’ve clearly been out of the atheist loop too long. Otherwise, this one post does not a major example make, and the only actual example I can think of this particular usage is anti-racist.

    Again, why did Crommunist say anti-homophobia rather than anti-homophobe? Because that’s what he meant.

    I’m really uninterested in this as a debate: I don’t care what it is called, I just wanted to clarify, and if that made me look stupid…..whatever.

  13. 18

    Hello? Please see comment #13. Yes, “anti-theist” is commonly used as a term, particularly when differentiating between activism to benefit atheists and activism meant to undermine theistic privilege.

  14. 19

    There’s a problem, though.

    An atheist can hold every one of these prejudices.

    Unless one thinks that atheism actually entails a particular moral proposition; e.g., there is no god, therefore homosexual acts are morally permissible, it is possible to be an atheist and hold lthat homoseuxality is intrinsically bad. It is possible to be an atheist, and insist on schooling one’s children at home to indoctrinate them in the principles of Ayn Rand Objectivism or strict communism (or to better conceal sexaul or other forms of exploitation).

    There is no evil written into scripture that cannot be written into a atheistic philosophy.

    Nothing that you find in scripture actually came from God. It was invented by humans and assigned to God. And anything that humans can invent and assign to God they can invent and assign to a philosophy that makes no use of God.

  15. 21

    I tend to be in favor of the “many approaches” idea – that there’s room for Chris Mooneys and PZs in the public face of atheism. We should have punk rockers yelling “Fuck God” while someone else is holding hands with theists and working to keep government secular for the protection of all. I’m more on the punk side myself.

    But people being anti-theist are actively antagonizing some under-privileged groups (even as they are most often punching up), like some religious immigrants in the USA. That’s fine for provoking thought, winning the minds of theists that are receptive to that kind of activism. But it’s also helping to marginalize some underprivileged people, which makes it an extremely odd duck for in the social justice tent.

    To an extent I’m conflating religious people with religions, which is a big no-no in these parts for good reason. But in the context of the real world, people often feel that closely associated with their ideologies. If someone says they’re “anti-progressive,” I’m going to see them as an avowed enemy of me personally, even if they say they’re “fighting against the influence of progressivism in the world, and not against progressives as human beings.”

    An absurd example I know, but I’m not exactly a trained master of rhetoric.

    Again, fighting against theism becomes necessary in all the situations you mentioned, but I feel like that’s better suited to a tactic within many social justice movements rather than a label for a movement itself. And there are social justice contexts in which one would be doing nothing but harm by ragging on people’s stupid religions.

    If I want to protect moslems, I’m not going to say, “OK, I protect you, but only if you acknowledge that Islam is a load of shit.” I won’t apologize for my atheism or progressive positions if they come up, but I don’t want to fuck with people who already have a hard situation. Not in a social justice context.

    But outside of that context, blasphemy is my highest sacrament. Kill all gods. Woo-ha.

  16. 22

    Also, what Alonzo said still counts. Anti-theism motivated by a loathing of arguments from authority is still only attacking one type of argument from authority. Not that doing so precludes attacking those non-theistic arguments from authority as well, but it doing one can’t be automatically said to be working toward the other.

  17. 24

    I’m a bit late getting the post read, but I did want to say I agree quite a lot.

    And as far as the objections above go, I don’t think I’ve seen any that don’t apply to the rest of the social justice categories. I see white people griping about anti-racism stuff. Or lots of people feeling excluded by feminism/anti-patriarchy for a variety of reasons, and so on. It’s all so very intermixed that you’re going to have lots of people feeling put out by some angle or other, and anti-theism/anti-religion doesn’t seem special that way.

  18. 25

    But people being anti-theist are actively antagonizing some under-privileged groups (even as they are most often punching up), like some religious immigrants in the USA. That’s fine for provoking thought, winning the minds of theists that are receptive to that kind of activism. But it’s also helping to marginalize some underprivileged people, which makes it an extremely odd duck for in the social justice tent.

    Social justice is not necessarily pro-the-marginalized. It depends a bit on what the marginalized group is doing – for example take the recent issue of gender segregation in UK universities.

    The move by the UUK was designed to cater to a marginalized community – but roused ire because it strongly conflicted with social justice.

    That aside, generally the group that most engages in this marginalization is dominated by theists justifying it on theistic grounds. Fox doesn’t say America is a secular nation, it says it is a Christian one.

    One should also note that the claim to ultimate truth so common to so many religions also tends to lead to social fracturing as schisms develop, creating sects that ensure there is a constant supply of groups to marginalize.

    Take Pakistan as a case study. They have precisely one Nobel prize winner for science, who they refuse to acknowledge as a Muslim because he was slightly the wrong kind of Muslim.

    Christianity – if you look at the history between Catholic and Protestant sects – is much the same.

    Thus even in this case, anti-theist activism includes a social justice element to it.

  19. 26

    I don’t know that anti-theist activism all by itself works as social justice activism. After all, the old Communist Party in the USSR was anti-theist, explicitly so. The CPSU was against the oppression the Orthodox Church engaged in — rightly so! — but I wouldn’t say they were all that good at social justice in many areas, and they ended up being pretty terrible to many minorities in Russia and its environs. In that case, they picked up on the old “civilizing mission” trope and it didn’t work out so well. (Just ask a Chukchi or Tuvan). The anti-theist activism of the Red Guards probably wouldn’t rank high on social justice meters either.

    Try to imagine telling a Native American that they should give up their religion because it is factually wrong. I hope you can see why that’s not a good selling point — and how it may work at cross-purposes with some parts of a social justice movement.

    This is the problem that I think Great American Satan was alluding to. The factual status of a belief in god(s) often has little to do with how people identify and experience religion on a daily basis, especially wen it is a marker of identity (along with lots of other stuff). Treating religion as a set of theological positions as though that were all there was to it strikes me as missing the point.

    I don’t disagree with the thrust of the post, I think that anti-theist activism can certainly work in conjunction with other social justice movements. But it’s one of those things where context matters a lot.

  20. 27

    @25 jesse

    I’d recommend reading Stephanie’s comment @19 for more context. The USSR/CPSU example is problematic in that regards because it simply replaced the structure of authority rather than abolishing it. Perhaps a better term needs to be found or invented? Anti-religious activism (with the idea that that form of communism was a non-theistic religion)? On the other hand, it’s probably better to make the best out of established terms, even if they aren’t 100% accurate.

  21. 28

    I was thinking about this yesterday (and I’ve not been reading here lately – too busy). I was thinking about the reasons that – as a (lousy, admittedly) Catholic – I support atheist activists, at least, the ones who seem positive about social justice.

    I think it’s just that there are so many voices that are unheard, especially from people who suffer oppressions from their faith. I have such admiration for the fact that Pope Francis is being called a Marxist right now, because it means he’s challenging some of the big ideas in culture (takes a long time to force an ocean liner to change direction, admittedly). Until he can go further in turning the ship around in MANY areas, there have to be others UNAFRAID of speaking up. If good Catholics, for instance, don’t want to speak up, you then need the lousy Catholics And the anti-theists – who have nothing to lose – to add their voices for social justice.

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